Out of South Africa: English - as she is spoke in Sefrika, men

JOHANNESBURG - Now that white South Africans are considered to be acceptable members of the human race it might be appropriate to try and become acquainted with one of their languages - the one they call English. Idiom, pronunciation and Afrikaans penetration are the three terrains of idiosyncrasy on which the foreigner will have to battle.

'Howzit?', literally translated as 'how is it?' is the most common form of greeting. The question, in truth, does not demand an answer. When English-speaking white South Africans say 'howzit?' what they really mean is 'hallo'.

But 'hah ewe?', meaning 'how are you?' should be taken as a genuine inquiry. The conventional reply, 'fahn', means 'fine', a phonetic variation on Queen's English which remains consistent in such instances as 'nahss' ('nice') and 'raht' ('right').

'Men' means man (though you can use it to address a woman) and is used commonly as in American English to complete a short conversational sentence. The same phonetic logic applies in words like 'flet' ('flat') and 'feb' (short for 'fabulous').

'Lekker' is an Afrikaans word which means 'sweet', strictly speaking, but in everyday conversation might best be translated as 'great' or 'super', as in 'that was a lekker meal we had last naht'. 'Jol' (pronounced 'jawl') is very popular among the young white things and means 'party' or 'groove', as in 'let's jol, doll'. Most of the other Afrikaans words used in the course of conversational South African English are too impolite to translate.

A case in point was provided during a recent test match between South Africa and Australia at the Wanderers, Johannesburg's Lord's. Shane Warne was fielding at third man when two South Africa supporters appeared on the boundary behind him and held up a sign which read, in pure Afrikaans, skaapsteker. (Clue: 'skaap' means 'sheep'.) Warne, who had done his homework, glowered at one of the two men and shouted, in an improper anatomical reference to his mother, 'Jou ma is 'n poes' - which rhymes with puss.

Since most Afrikaners speak English, English is certain soon to become South Africa's de facto official language. So once you've got used to the pronunciation ('yiss', incidentally, is how they say 'yes'), it's the idiomatic expressions which will pose the only serious challenges.

Imagine you're at a restaurant, getting impatient for your meal. You ask the waitress when your kudu steak is coming. If she replies, 'Just now', you're in trouble. The steak's probably still in the bush. 'Now, now' is better, suggesting the steak has perhaps made it to the deep freeze.

Then again, you're in a mall, where the South African bourgeoisie spend most of their Saturday mornings, and you're taking your baby for a stroll in the pram. Two kugels - young women (usually Jewish) dressed, groomed and accessorised after the very latest fashion - look inside the pram. 'Ag, look, men. Shame],'coos kugel A. 'Shame]' echoes kugel B.

Do not be alarmed. They are not suggesting your baby is pitiably ugly. On the contrary. Shame can mean shame but it can also mean 'adorable'.

'Shame' can convey dripping admiration but it can also convey dry disdain: 'England got thrashed at rugby by Natal]' 'Shame.' Or it can express genuine distress: 'Shame, men] Shame]' might be the response to the news that you've broken your leg.

For the benefit of previous visitors to South Africa it might be as well to point out that some words you might have encountered a month ago are rapidly going out of date in the new South Africa. 'Garden boy' for a 65-year-old black man is not recommended. You do not call a black person a 'kaffir'. (Even Eugene Terreblanche has bowed before this brand of political correctness.) And, for those who were in South Africa some 30 years ago, 'niggerballs' for a particular kind of gobstopper is most definitely out.

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